What I Read In March

What I Read In MarchBy all rights, March really shouldn’t have been a successful month for reading. It’s prime dissertation time in the Tamsin household at the moment (I’ve got just under three weeks to get it written, formatted, printed, bound and submitted to the Cambridge History of Art department), so I’ve been losing myself in books. Ok, I really shouldn’t really be surprised. Books are fantastic procrastination.

So this month I read five new non-Tripos books!

The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco
One that’s been on my TBR list for actual years. I was so happy to finally get my teeth into this one! And it proved very toothsome indeed. I wrote a review about it here.

Wool by Hugh Howey
I loved this a lot. Wrote a review about it here. Sidled into Forbidden Planet yesterday and bought the sequel, Shift, and really can’t wait to read that next! I think I’m going to parcel it out in little sections and read each as a treat every time I’ve written a bit of dissertation. Then Dust can be my post-exams treat…

Wedding Night by Sophie Kinsella
I haven’t had a chance to read good old-fashioned chick-lit in absolutely ages, and I’ve had a soft spot for Sophie Kinsella’s writing ever since I made the mistake of not packing enough reads for Thailand in 2007, and bought everything she’d ever written in the tourist bookshop in the nearest town. Pure escapism.

Sandman: Season of Mists by Neil Gaiman
My boyfriend bought me the first Sandman graphic novel for my 22nd birthday in December, and I’ve slowly been reading my way through the series since then – this one is number 4! The writing is incredible (such a Gaiman fangirl) and I love that since I don’t have to wait for new novels to come out, I can read as slowly or as quickly as I like, and see how the art develops. These books are gruesomely fascinating, and I love them.

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green
A book that forces you out of your comfort zone and makes you contemplate things your mind usually shuts itself away from – namely, death. And how we’re all just barnacles on the container ship of consciousness. I wrote down my thoughts about it here.

Re-reads included Nicholas Sparks’ The Notebook (so many tears) and George Orwell’s1984. The latter was read to commemorate my seeing the Almeida play, which was equal measures of brilliance and grisly to a face-hiding degree. Go see it if you can when it transfers to the West End!

I can’t believe it’s April already. Time to get my skates on with the old dissertation I reckon. No more non-academic books. Well, except maybe Shift…

Review: The Fault In Our Stars

The Fault In Our Stars

Title: The Fault In Our Stars
Author: John Green
Publisher: Penguin Books
Year originally published: 2012

I’m sure that The Fault In Our Stars hasn’t escaped your attention. You’re probably sick of Stars-related reviews. It’s just one of those books that can’t help but permeate the sphere of one’s consciousness. It’s been riding high in the bestsellers’ list for weeks and weeks. It’s been displayed in prime position in just about every bookshop I’ve walked into in the last few months. Oh, and it’s reached saturation point on the blogs I read, even making that rare jump from reviews on the book blogs to lifestyle and even beauty blogs. In short, it was solidly on my TBR list, and my expectations were high.

The question is, were they met? Well, it’s pretty hard not to love the book. I instantly identified with the main character, Hazel, who seemingly has all the traits I saw in myself when I, too, was an angsty adolescent. She flips out at her nervously helicoptering mum. She runs off with a gorgeous boy even when her parents advise her against it. She prefers literature to real life: she’d rather sit on a bench and read her newly purchased novel at the mall than chat with her best friend. But there’s one thing that sets Hazel quite apart from that group of rebellious, bookish sixteen-year olds of which I was once a firm member. She’s got terminal cancer.

But hold on a second before you dismiss The Fault In Our Stars as a depressing cancer novel. The Fault In Our Stars is not merely about cancer. It’s about grabbing the gift of life while you have it, about enjoying every moment you’ve got, because let’s face it – we spend our lives dying, always unsure how long exactly we’ve got. Hazel is like a bud in the novel, tightly closing in on herself because she’s afraid of her grenade-like potential, convinced that the fewer people she surrounds herself with, the smaller the radius of the shrapnel blast that will inevitably happen when she ‘bites it’. It’s only with the appearance of athletic, totally fanciable Augustus that she slowly starts to open up and shake off the dependent traits that cancer has fostered in her character, which is wonderful to read. It’s rare to see such palpable character development – or, conversely, to see such physical change in characters over the course of a novel – and I’m sure that it’s this character growth that had me sobbing so hard at the end of the book.

My verdict: 4/5
The Fault In Our Stars is eminently readable, and should be read, I think, by all members of my generation. We’re at that age where everything seems conquerable and life seems to stretch on endlessly ahead of us; we feel constantly invincible. Reading this book made me profoundly aware of my own mortality, especially as the characters were a good six years younger than me. I’ve definitely read books that are written much more elegantly, with more thrilling plots, but this is not the point here. For me, this was a story about celebrating the relationships that you’ve built up, being grateful for good health, and savouring every moment you’ve got. I’m excited for the film – but I’d better bring a big packet of Kleenex.

Review: Wool

Hugh Howey - Wool

Title: Wool
Author: Hugh Howey
Publisher: Arrow Books
Year originally published: 2013

Wool was my prize from a treasure hunt around London, the result of piecing together and deciphering clues hidden in galleries, churches and museums, all set up by my decidedly superior bibliophile friend Emily. After hours of roving around the city, I found Emily in the café in Foyles, and was presented with a £10 book token. Of course, I had to spend it right there and then. I raced through the bookshop and immediately racked up a giant pile of new discoveries as well as items from my TBR list. Studying blurbs wildly, I picked up Wool. Did it measure up to the dystopian list I had in my head? A ruined and hostile landscape. Check. A future few have been unlucky to survive. Check. A community in a giant underground silo. Oooh, check. The next Hunger Games. Right, where’s the checkout?

The unlucky few are the people we’re locked up in the silo with, and on the whole they’re a likeable bunch. That is, until the dire truth about their living situation begins to emerge. Yet in the face of this gut-wrenchingly awful news, some remain admirably steadfast. I was impressed with Howey’s choice of protagonist, Jules. Yes, she fits into the YA/dystopian romance paradigm of gutsy-yet-beautiful heroine dominant in trilogies like The Hunger GamesDivergent, Matched and Delirium, but Jules stands out from that pack for one reason: She’s not an adolescent. It’s hugely refreshing to see Howey subverting the cult of youth to pick a 34-year old heroine who happens to have a bit of a crush on a 25-year old. And what? Age does not matter in the silo, and neither should it matter in our world. Which leads me to a little bugbear I have against most dystopian YA: Reading about seventeen-year old girls saving the world can only inspire me to a certain point. As a twenty-something female about to enter the non-academic world of work, I want to read about real women with years of experience, heartbreak and loss under their belts, taking on positions of leadership and doing a damn good job of it.

Naturally, I must now get my hands on Shift and Dust, having enjoyed Wool so much. Joyously, Howey decided to release the trilogy over the course of 2013, instead of tortuously drawing out the process of waiting for each installment, A Song of Ice and Fire style (c’mon, George R.R. Martin, where’s The Winds of Winter?) I can only hope they don’t suffer from what I like to call ‘trilogy syndrome’: the second book, the ‘filler’, provides background information to the events of the first book and essentially provides a fictional bridge between the action of the first and third installments’; the third book supplies us with a narrative dénouement, while resolving a love triangle of which we’d already guessed the outcome, way back in book one. In my experience, the second and third books are inevitably doomed to be weaker in terms of both plot and writing, which is saddening. But trilogy syndrome be damned. Wool was so engaging that my real problem at the moment is whether to do some work on my dissertation or read the next two books over the weekend…

My verdict: 5/5
I devoured Wool in a single day. It’s one of those books that’ll make you almost miss your train stop, that’ll be sitting open on your knees as you shovel your lunch into your mouth, that you’ll burn the midnight oil with, disregarding all sense of a proper bedtime. I wasn’t a social or functional human being in the one day that I sacrificed for Wool, and I don’t mind one bit. Yet losing myself in a book so completely did have slightly tunnel-vision repercussions – it wasn’t until my boyfriend was asking about the significance of the title that I finally got it. Wool refers to the wool of the cleaners, but also the wool that’s been pulled over the silo inhabitants’ eyes. Genius.

Review: The Name of the Rose

Umberto Eco: The Name of the Rose

Title: The Name of the Rose (originally Il nome della rosa)
Author: Umberto Eco
Publisher: Vintage Books
Year originally published: 1980

The Name of the Rose has been a bit of a slow burner. I read roughly four to six academic books a week during term time, but when I read non-Tripos books it’ll usually take me about a week. The Name of the Rose has taken me exactly one month to read. I spent the second half of term reading a few pages a night, then term ended and Eco’s book sucked me into its medieval world of heresy and immolations.

The story is told from the perspective of an ageing German monk, Adso, reflecting on his days as a novice, travelling around Europe with an older monk, William of Baskerville, in the first half of the 14th century. They stop off for a week in a magnificent abbey in northern Italy; yet over the course of these seven days, the two monks are embroiled in a puzzling tangle of murders, code, and a mysteriously labyrinthine library.

Once I’d properly started to engage with the story, I loved it. William of Baskerville, hailing from England, seems to have been written in the great tradition of dryly observant English detectives, cut from an incredibly similar cloth to Sherlock Holmes. The 1300s are also a compelling century to read about – with the learned on the cusp of grasping the technologies that have shaped our world today; William introduces Adso to the wonder of reading lenses and proto-compass magnets for divining one’s direction. Confession: I’m slightly biased towards this kind of setting. I studied medieval French literature in 2012 and medieval Italian art in 2013, so I’m bit in love with the Middle Ages, era of morbidly fascinating reliquaries and horrifying accounts of the Black Death. But I really don’t think you have to be a medieval scholar to enjoy this book. A little prior knowledge of ecclesiastical Latin or Romance languages would be useful, but is by no means necessary.

Something I also really appreciated in The Name of the Rose was just how hilarious it was in parts. Adso’s oneiric sequence had me crying with laughter in parts. Meanwhile, the short synopses which opened each chapter were mostly fairly banal, so unexpected injections of humour did not go unappreciated. For example:

‘In which the abbot speaks again with the visitors, and William has some astounding ideas for deciphering the riddle of the labyrinth and succeeds in the most rational way. Then William and Adso eat cheese in batter.’

I’d like some cheese in batter now please.

If you have difficulty connecting with the period, something that really helped me was to ensconce myself in my room, light a candle and create a Spotify playlist  full of church music (I especially favoured Vaughan Williams’ Mass in G Minor). From that point I had no difficulty summoning images of cowled monks strolling piously around the cloisters! The Name of the Rose is definitely a book everyone should read at some point in their lives – it’s a great one for reflecting on the vicissitudes of age as well as the extent of our development in terms of technology and civil rights in the seven centuries that have passed.

My verdict: 4/5
Slow to get going, with some relatively heavy passages, but the doses of humour and whodunnit-style murders lent this book some much-needed lightness and made it a compelling read!